WASHINGTON (CNN) - Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said Tuesday he is prepared to back a comprehensive health care reform bill if it excludes both a public health insurance option and a provision allowing 55- to 64-year-olds to buy into Medicare.
If the public option "is out and the Medicare buy-in - which I thought would jeopardize Medicare, cost taxpayers billions of dollars over the long haul (and) increase our deficit - is out ... then I'm going to be in a position where I can say ... that I'm ready to vote for health care reform," Lieberman told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has emerged as the majority party's main obstacle to its efforts to get a health care bill through the Senate before Christmas. He threatened over the weekend to join a GOP filibuster if the legislation contains either the public option or the Medicare expansion.
If Republicans remain united in their opposition to health care legislation, Senate Democrats will need the backing of all 60 members of their
caucus to end debate in the chamber and move to a final vote.
Final passage of the bill would then require only a simple majority of 51 votes.
"The Medicare buy-in as proposed didn't make sense," Lieberman argued. "It's not necessary" given the extensive insurance subsidies offered under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's $848 billion plan.
"We've got a great insurance reform bill here (but) some of my colleagues were trying to load it up with too much."
Senate Democrats held an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss the issue. A final decision was not made on the fate of the proposed Medicare buy-in at the time, but a Democratic source said the matter could be decided at a White House meeting Tuesday afternoon between President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats.
"I think there is a fundamental understanding of the direction we're going in," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts.
Before the meeting, liberal Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia indicated that the Medicare buy-in would likely be dropped. While they didn't like the idea, they suggested they would support a health care bill anyway.
Democrats "may have to do what Mr. Lieberman wants," Harkin told CNN.
Lieberman supported letting older workers buy into Medicare in 2000, when he was the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and as recently as September in comments to a Connecticut newspaper. But he said both Monday and Tuesday that the idea is no longer necessary.
"I didn't change my mind on the Medicare buy-in," he insisted Tuesday. But circumstances, he argued, had changed greatly over the past nine years. Among other things, the country now has huge deficits - as opposed to a budget surplus - and Medicare is now on verge of bankruptcy, he said.
The Medicare buy-in was part of a package of provisions announced by Reid last week as an alternative to a public option, which lacked enough support among Democrats to break a filibuster. Negotiated by a team of 10 Democratic senators - five liberal and five moderate - the compromise package had been hailed by Reid, Obama and others as an important step forward in the health
The package also would allow private insurers to offer non-profit health coverage overseen by the government. But many senators have reserved judgment on the compromise proposal until the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its analysis of how much it costs.
The CBO estimate is expected to be completed Tuesday.
Reid would discuss no specifics of a bill after Monday night's caucus, telling reporters he would wait until the CBO finished its estimate of a
revised bill's price tag. But he said the measure "saves lives, saves money, and saves Medicare."
"I am confident that by next week we'll be on our way to forward this bill to the president," he said.
Most Democrats have supported the public option as a non-profit competitor to private insurers that would expand coverage and bring down
prices. Republicans and some moderate Democrats, along with the health insurance industry - one of the major employers in Lieberman's home state - oppose a public option, calling it a first step toward a government takeover of the U.S. health care system.
"I haven't received any pressure from insurance companies," Lieberman said Tuesday. "I've never hesitated to take on insurance companies."
Another potential obstacle for Reid is moderate Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who said Sunday said he cannot support the Senate bill without tighter restrictions on federal funding for abortion. The Senate last week defeated an amendment proposed by Nelson and two other senators that would adopt tougher language on abortion funding contained in the House health care bill.
A compromise on the abortion language is possible, said Nelson, one of the 10 Senate Democrats who negotiated in private last week.
If the Senate eventually passes a health care bill, its version will have to be merged with the version the House of Representatives passed in November, which includes a public health insurance plan. The final bill would then need approval from both chambers before going to Obama to be signed into law.
Obama and Democratic leaders have said they want the bill completed this year. The Senate would need to finish its work this week to leave a realistic chance of meeting that schedule.